Beginning To Sound An Alt. Like Christmas
As with all music obsessives, there are two rituals I go through as we approach the festive season. The first is to compile a list of my favourite albums/tracks for some mythical desert island disc show or call from the NME desperate to know what I’ve been listening to this year. I might do one of those for a later blog, but the main one is to dust off the old Christmas records and give them a listen. Of course, any self-respecting musical bore like myself has their own ‘alternative’ Christmas list of tunes, but, just like the great Shaky and Sir Cliff, however cheesy the songs might be, somehow playing them once again in December is what we do. At this point you might want to open the playlist on Spotify to sample the ‘delights’ that await,
It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas
and I’ve included a few YouTube links as the icing on the cake.
First out of the Christmas box is Sufjan Stevens; Songs for Christmas/Silver and Gold.
The Brooklyn boy genius has been a long time favourite of mine, and never more so than at Christmas. For a good many years now he has recorded a few Christmas songs as a present to his nearest and dearest. These have drifted out to a wider public over the years, and he’s made the wise decision to belatedly make them available on his own Asthmatic Kitty label. There are a few twee and cutesy versions of seasonal classics, but the real treats are the Christmas songs he has written himself. And there are plenty to choose from. These two albums contain getting on for a hundred tracks, compiling as they do the sum total of his Christmas output since the start of the century. To be taken with a large sherry. In a pint glass
Was (not Was); Christmas time in the motor city
Can it really be 1981 that this was first released? Back then this track was spoken of in hushed tones as the holy grail of Christmas songs. Surely their Christmas song must be the ultimate ironic seasonal gift? It only appeared very briefly on a Christmas album released by the legendary Ze label out of Chicago. It was a different world then. US releases were hard to come by, and Was (Not Was) were at the cutting edge of post-disco dance music, as they combined it with a weird art-rock/Detroit soul genre-defying melange of sounds. As it turned out, when I finally heard it, inevitably it didn’t live up to what I assumed it to be, but it still makes me smile. The perfect accompaniment to a whole box of dates.
The Flaming Lips; A Change at Christmas (Say it isn’t so).
A festive outing for everyone’s favourite ‘dad-rock’ band. This again was only very briefly available, but does turns up on the odd indie-style compilation from time to time. “Everything’s gonna work out just fine” entones Wayne at the start to this, and let’s hope he’s right, although I’m not convinced. The world according to The Flaming Lips is a strange place, and one which we don’t get enough of in my view. A typical hypnotic and dreamy song which sounds fresher every year it gets taken out of the Christmas box. To be accompanied by the first cheese footballs of the day.
Alexander O’Neal; My Gift to You album
This is one from my soul-boy days, when I eagerly devoured anything emanating from Minneapolis. He fell out with Prince, but Jam and Lewis took him under their seasonal wings and produced him the Christmas album to end them all. In the spirit of Christmas forgiveness, let’s ignore the drugs hell he descended into since his hey-day, and wallow in the 80’s dance-floor grooves and deep-soul crooning of this cracker. To be consumed with a pyramid of Ferrero Rocher.
Neal Casal; Cora Jones
There are some songs where you know where you were when you first heard them, and this is one of those. Hearing this for the first time sent me into a spin of hitting the repeat button on the one hand, and trying to find out more about the singer on the other. I can see myself now in a parked car on a rain-swept Redcar seafront, marvelling at the purity and sheer beauty of a song, which must also be the most depressing and disturbing Christmas song ever. The story of the unsolved murder and rape of a 12-year is probably guaranteed to keep this off most people’s Christmas list, but try to get beyond that as you listen to a heartfelt tribute by Neal. From hearing this, I made it my mission to become better acquainted with Mr Casal, and I wasn’t alone in my appreciation of him. I found out I’d already seen him in a band supporting Martha Wainwright, and even as I was listening to this, back in 2006 he was rehearsing to become a member of Ryan Adams’ backing band, The Cardinals. These side activities haven’t prevented him from producing a body of work stretching to well over 20 albums of solo work and collaborations, although this track is almost impossible to locate these days. To be accompanied by a smooth glass of Bailey’s Irish cream.
Rufus/Martha Wainwright. Spotlight on Christmas
My Rufus obsession is no real secret, and his attempt at a Christmas song with his sister a joyous affair. Christmas is a big event with his extended family, but since the death of his mother Kate McGarrigle, the sparkle has diminished a little. He still puts on a Christmas celebration show in the US, and I’d pay the air-fare just to hear them singing this. To be taken with a spoonful of Brandy Butter.
She & Him. A very She & Him Christmas
This is the covers album from heaven or hell depending on your view of the pairing of Zooey Deschanel and M Ward, in the guise of She & Him. OK, there are a few over-done classics. I’d die a happy man if I never heard anybody sing ‘Rockin’ around the Christmas tree’ ever again, but anyone who takes on a cover of a Beach Boys song deserves a listen in my world, and their brave and successful take on the ‘Little Saint Nick’ does it for me.
Smith and Burrows. Funny looking angels
If you like dark and gloomy, mixed with, well, more dark and gloomy, this could be for you. It’s collaboration between the Editors’ singer and Razorlight’s drummer, and if that’s not enough to draw you in, the NME gave it 1 out of 10 when it came out, so they must be doing something right to annoy the NME so successfully. Try to get to the end of their opening pairing of ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ and ‘When the Thames froze over’ without reaching for a large shot of eggnog.
Christmas turkeys. Here’s one that takes the Rudolph-shaped Marks and Spencer’s biscuit. The Bowie/Bing Crosby duet ‘Little Drummer Boy’.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have a great deal of respect for Der Bingle, but the genesis behind this track is a classic. It was never intended to be a single, and indeed it wasn’t, until well after Bing had pegged it, although it was widely bootlegged. It was recorded for a Christmas TV special, when poor old Bing was well past his singing best, and sadly five weeks later he was dead. Bowie turned up for the taping and promptly announced that he hated the song, and refused to sing it. Franticly, counterparts and new lyrics were written and arranged to keep him happy, and the taping went ahead. Poor old Bing didn’t know who Bowie was, and the uncomfortable footage which ensued is either terrible or marvellous (or both) depending on your POV.
Its release as a single was the nail in the coffin of Bowie’s relationship with RCA, and led directly to him leaving the label. Not very Christmassy at all. Take with a goodly sized piece of chestnut stuffing.
Tracey Thorn; Tinsel and Lights (album)
Let’s keep it totally rad shall we. Just released is this collection, and I reckon I’ll be listening to it well into 2013, and beyond. This is, as the opening track ‘Joy’ tends to hint at, a truly marvellous affair. The ex-EBTG vocalist ensures we have none of that sentimental Christmas goo dished out, but instead celebrates the atmosphere and emotions associated with Christmas. One of the most electrifying moments for me, as confirmed died-in-the wool Scritti Politti fan, is the duet with Green Gartside, ‘Taking down the tree’. The songs here are not your traditional Christmas fair, but it works as a Christmas album par excellence. And taking us full circle, she covers the Sufjan Stevens original ‘Sister Winter’, from his first Christmas compilation. Listen to this with tinsel wrapped round your head.
OK, time to close, and wish everyone best wishes for a an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, gender neutral observance of the winter solstice, in accordance with your religious persuasion without pejorative comment on others who choose to practice their own religion or who choose not to practice at all, and a personally fulfilling, alcohol responsible, observance of the generally accepted move to the calendar of 2013, whilst maintaining due respect to other calendars and traditions of those who choose to observe alternative calendars of choice with no disrespect implied to any other race, colour or sexual preference.